During the college football season, you can find Ray Bentley in the booth calling games as a color analyst for ESPN. The 57-year-old former linebacker for the Buffalo Bills has been working in television since 1994 and for ESPN for the past 12 years.
“I love it,” he said from his home in New Market, N.H. “Mostly because I get to speak the language and be a part of the game. That and nobody beats the crap out of me anymore. I’ll be honest. I miss hitting people. That’s a great feeling. But I did not like getting hit back.”
Being in the booth comes easy for Bentley. He has always had a way with words, especially the written ones. As a senior in high school, he started keeping a journal that he wrote in almost every day. Then, when Bentley played for the Bills from 1986 to 1991, he wrote a series of children’s books. And in June 2015, he released his first adult fiction novel, "Driftwood," about the life of a professional football player based in Buffalo.
A few months later, ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series released “Four Falls of Buffalo,” which chronicles the Bills' historic and emotional run to four consecutive Super Bowls in the early '90s. Bentley was a part of that team. And he says the film hit him hard.
“I started thinking about it and I remembered that I had journals from that time. So, I looked through the basement and found all of my old journals. And I started reading them and thought, this is gold. There are some great stories about things that happened that I had forgotten, and some of it had never come to light.”
When Bentley first arrived in Buffalo in 1986, the team was in chaos. He says it seemed as if every player was looking over his shoulder, wondering if he were going to get traded or cut. But things started to come together when Marv Levy arrived, and everyone knows how the team took a turn for the better. As he's been busy writing, Bentley has relived it all — the quest, the chase, the work, the thrill and, especially, the players. To him, they were more than just a team; they were a family. And now, decades later, he’s putting the finishing touches on his soon-to-be-released memoir, "Buffalo Rising Behind the Eye Black."
“That’s the working title,” Bentley said with a laugh. “The book should be out this summer, probably in August just in time for training camp. Honestly, the whole experience is a storybook kind of thing. It amazes me and it was an honor to be a part of it.”
It’s been a while since Bentley has been able to get back to Buffalo to watch a game. He's usually busy on assignment, covering college football games during the Bills season, and he doesn't have time for much else. But he plans on doing some book events this summer and getting his fill of the Queen City. Whenever he’s in town, he says, he loves reconnecting with some of his former teammates.
“The great thing about that team is that we pick up conversations like we never left off, when we see each other, like it was yesterday," he said. "And those are deep bonds when you are able to do that. I really enjoy that part of it. It’s a lot of fun every time I get a chance to see a former teammate.”
As for Bills fans and the people of Buffalo in general, Bentley can’t say enough. He searches for the right word to describe them, but he can’t seem to settle on a specific one that encapsulates them best. Instead, he sighs and says, Buffalo is just different — and by "different" he means one of a kind.
“I think you saw the manifestation of that when the Bills made the playoffs this year. What it means to the people in Buffalo and how invested they are — not just monetarily but in their hearts. I’ve played football across the country, and I have never seen it matter to the fans as much as it does to the people in Buffalo. And that’s special to me.”